You’re hunkered down behind a beaten-up truck, bleeding from a chest wound. You can hear the labored breathing of one of your squadmates over the comms. Nightmare, as the team knows her, is unconscious at your feet, but you can’t think about that right now as a horde of zombies comes skittering around the corner. You take aim, the first of your targets weaving erratically in your field of vision before you blow its brains out. You repeat this twice more and as the horde advances yet again, you hear a shot ring out and a bullet zips past your ear, splintering the helmet of an ADVENT soldier who had a flamethrower at the ready.
The sniper, Rat King, holds up five fingers–minutes until evac arrives. Another member of your squad, Outrider, drops cloaking and picks Nightmare up to take her to safety as the sounds of more Lost ring out in the distance. It takes seconds, in the end. With the Commander’s voice in your ear, you pull the pin on the frag grenade and chuck it, close enough to clip the rampaging horde but also to light up the truck that you’re taking cover behind. This resulting explosion will finish you, but allow everyone else to make it to safety. After all the hard choices the Commander has had to make, your last thought is the hope that this has been easy in comparison.
XCOM 2 Collection on the Switch is an ambitious port, full of those excruciating choices and richer for it. Firaxis Games’ alien-massacring hit has become a bit of a household name when it comes to strategy games. Even though it’s infamous for its Russian roulette-style approach to combat probability, the impact that XCOM 2 has had on the genre as a whole is widely accepted, making this one of the more highly-anticipated ports of legacy franchises to Nintendo’s flagship console. Unfortunately, the full experience is too performance-intensive for the Switch to let the title’s tactical magic truly shine through in this latest iteration.
For those who are new to the XCOM series, the extensive lore can be a bit to wrap your head around. However, you’ll be relieved to note that you don’t need to be an expert in alien-human diplomatic relations to connect with XCOM 2’s characters and central premise. Think of every space opera that you’ve watched, but now imagine that your starting point is that the aliens have won. Humanity is under the thumb of interstellar rulers, and you’re part of a resistance force to overthrow the bad guys.
How does one overthrow the bad guys? Well, you’re going to want to defeat them in the marketplace of tactical troop deployment. Your job is leading loyal members of the Resistance (read: people the game really wants you to care about) against the intergalactic prowess of an alien empire, and it’s a classic case of rooting for the underdog if you’ve ever seen one.
Luckily, XCOM 2 has always pulled this off with aplomb, and it’s even more apparent if the version of the game that you’re jumping into is War of the Chosen. War of the Chosen is an optional expansion which, put simply, makes the human cost of the conflict that you pursue in XCOM 2 much more apparent. One of the ways it does this is by introducing a system that Fire Emblem fans are already familiar with: bonds between soldiers.
These bonds have the primary purpose of allowing your soldiers to gain new abilities and perks based on how close they are to those fighting alongside them against the alien scourge. The benefits seem entirely tactical at first until you think about the cruelly high stakes that XCOM 2 has always subjected players to. Soldiers aren’t only strengthened by their teammates, they’re also weakened by their fears–fall to an enemy type enough in battle and you’ll have to watch your squad crumble the next time you encounter that foe in the wild.
The difficulty curve of the game has been lamented by fans in the past, but not because of the addition of those debuffs or particularly tricky level mechanics–tactical cover, using party-wide skills, line of sight, and other combat concepts are easy to pick up. No, the most frequent complaint from veterans is the fact that you can’t trust your ability to hit a headshot even though the game might argue that you had a 98% chance to do so. There’s very little more agonizing than watching your squad member whiff a shot like that, only to be critically struck by an enemy’s laser while ostensibly behind majority cover.
Nothing rackets up the tension to unbearable levels quite like the game’s story missions. Part of engaging with those missions is also making careful strategic decisions about base management: what alien technologies to research and what facilities to build to empower your soldiers, because prioritizing the wrong thing can set your efforts back by miles. It’s not about mindlessly churning out anything that might buff your squad–building takes days, and reaping the right rewards is crucial to your campaign’s overall success.
When you’re not busy scanning locations on the globe map for resources or trying to pick up comms links to resistance forces, you’re thrust often into time-sensitive missions where your inaction means that people die. Not just civilians, but potentially friends that have been taken hostage.
This is where War of the Chosen accomplishes what the base XCOM 2 game could not. The expansion’s enemies bring a new flair to the already solid narrative by creating new opportunities for tension. We’re talking enemies that can make copies of XCOM soldiers, zombie hordes frothing at the mouth, and the mythical Chosen themselves–souped-up enemies who can kidnap your soldiers and grind the resistance’s progress to a halt if they’re not dealt with. To deal with these Chosen, you’ll be able to engage allies in covert operations for extra resources and also push through special orders that give you anything from extra firepower to the ability to get strategic resources.
XCOM 2 sets you up with a fair amount of ways to even the odds against your more powerful alien counterparts, and making full use of all of those is key to success. Whether it’s utilizing the special hero class soldiers that War of the Chosen gives you, or trying to turn randomized combat effects to your advantage, the arena where you’ll earn your necessary victories remains the same–a tactical grid of the battlefield.
It’s here on this battlefield that the lionized series starts to stumble. This would be a death knell if not for how compelling the narrative is, or how involved the out-of-combat management aspects are. To be clear, it was a given that the port of a rather intensive PC game would always take a hit in quality on Nintendo Switch. However, it’s a rather significant dip.
Visual pop-in and frame stuttering are immediately evident across the combat levels, especially so when you’re cracking through War of the Chosen. These don’t affect the quality of your player experience overly given that you’re not needing to execute any frame-perfect actions. However, menus being obscured by black squares meant to denote the tactical grid do affect your ability to command your troops effectively. It’s larger graphical issues like that which can make necessary actions like directing your troops excruciating when all you want to do is chase the excitement of chaining headshots onto Lost enemies while the flawless score thrums along in the background.
There’s also the matter of the action camera: slow-motion close-ups on your squad when they’re performing certain tasks. It’s all well and good when they activate as you’re scoring a critical on an enemy, but more often than not you’re getting a camera zoom on someone just running behind cover, and the cinematic nature of the tracking shot is yet another wrench thrown wholesale at your frame rate. There were instances where the game would freeze entirely for about 10 seconds at a time before everything clicked back into place, with squad members rubberbanding across the screen before arriving at approximately where you had indicated they should go before.
These things make dealing with the visually dense UI quite difficult. Everything about XCOM 2 Collection was shrunk down to fit on the Switch, including the menus. There’s a fair amount of reading to be done before you start to intuit what all of your skills do, and each soldier comes with an action menu laid out across the bottom of the screen that has their possible actions displayed in tiny little squares with accompanying text.
Here is where it gets tricky to read. The symbols look quite different, but it’s not actually obvious as to what each of them pertains to. Sure, the one that looks like an aiming reticle is easy enough; so is the one shaped like an eye or a grenade. But what about symbols that look similar, but are differentiated by tooltip text that tells you one is a combat ability and another is an assist ability? Everything has been visually crunched down to fit on the Switch’s screen, and the limited real estate compared to a PC monitor is a size difference that’s keenly felt.
Font size and accessibility have been perennial problems for Switch ports of PC games, and XCOM 2 Collection is no different. Over a time, you get used to the shortcuts that are available for specific player actions like shooting, going into Overwatch mode (reactive fire), and calling for help, but it takes time. When levels drag on for longer than they should because of lagging, crashes, or the fact that you have to account for being hindered by visual bugs, that time can feel like it’s in short supply.
You might risk losing patience with the title entirely because of these technical issues and how taxing it is on your console’s battery life, but to write off XCOM 2 Collection would be a shame. It’s a strategy game with an unusual amount of heart, not only because of its ability to make nameless cannon fodder NPCs feel like real people to you.
Soldiers chatter in their own languages, can be given nicknames, and even adopt traits that affect how they behave. If you want to make sure that you approach every situation with kid gloves and a knot of dread in your stomach, then feel free to create a squad of alien-fighting quasi-Marines who look and sound just like your friends. Every single percent towards nailing a shot will feel like it counts then, and every action you take will carry even more weight than the amount already imbued by XCOM 2’s narrative, as well as the story that you inevitably weave as the player through attachments to your troops.
Those tense moments are where XCOM 2 is most compelling. It’s when you’re gripping your Joy-Cons in sweaty hands, praying that the lumbering flesh golem doesn’t eviscerate a soldier who carries the name of one of your childhood friends. It’s landing successive headshots when the game tells you that your hit chance is less than 50% each time, only to muscle your way out of a previously impossible situation. It’s making it to an evac zone with exactly one turn to spare, only to have your heart sink because someone you’ve been trying all level to save has been kidnapped by the Chosen and there’s nothing you can do about it.
XCOM 2 Collection forces you to strategize on a tactical battlefield skewed in favor of your opponents, and that handicap is what makes it so enjoyable. However, the performance limitations on the Switch add an artificial challenge to your encounters that frustrates in a different, unwelcome way. It’s lovely to be able to play one of the strategy genre’s highlights on the go, but it’s going to take a fair bit more work for this port to be as great as its legacy deserves.